The plot is pretty simple. Denzel Washington plays John Quincy Archibald, a beleaguered working class guy in Chicago whose hours at the factory have been reduced and whose car has just been repo'd. He is catching guff about money from his wife (Denise Archibald), and the couple has a cute and loving kid Mike (Daniel Smith) who collapses during a baseball game.
It turns out that Mike needs a heart transplant, which the nasty hospital administrator (Anne Heche) informs John will cost $250,000, an operation his insurance policy doesn't come close to covering. The Archibald's sell of nearly everything they own to try and raise the money to pay the hospital and the greedy, uncaring surgeon (James Woods) and as Mike slips closer to dying, John snaps and takes over the hospital emergency room.
Robert Duvall plays Lt. Frank Grimes, an aging hostage negotiator undermined by his idiot boss (Ray Liotta). Almost everybody in this movie is a cliche -- the uncaring administrator, the political and bumbling police chief, the saintly, too-good-to-be true John Archibald, whose solution to his very valid complaints about the American health care system -- a solution much endorsed by the movie -- is to get a gun and take over the emergency room while patients bleed and give birth. Even while holding hostages at gunpoint, Washington's character is noble, even saintly. Washington is a great actor and he is a likeable hero here, but the plot just takes too many loopy twists and turns. Everyone in the film is either a cartoon villain or a noble lifesaver really to preach about the evils of HMOs at the drop of a gun.
The best parts of the movie, not surprisingly, occur when Duvall and Washington are sparking off one another. But unaccountably, there are so many silly plot contortions that the power of that great pairing is lost. Director Nick Cassavetes and writer James Kearns twist their movie into a pretzel trying to deal with all of the potential racial, class and political sensibilities. To balance all the evil doctors, there are some wonderful ones.
To avoid the appearance of hitting racial issues too hard, Archibald's friends are all white. In addition to the stupid police chief (is any authority figure in America ever competent in a Hollywood movie?), there's a woman-beater and an airhead, vain TV reporter.
I won't give away the ending, but it's fun watching the moviemakers wrestle with a dilemma of their own making. The movie seems to be saying that the best way to deal with your insurer is to get a weapon and take some hostages. Unlike the heroes of Dog Day Afternoon, perhaps the classic modern hostage movie, John Archibald is saintly and noble enough to run for President. So what becomes of our Dad/kidnapper? You'll have to see the movie to find out. It's entertaining, and it's almost sure to be a big hit. But even a superstar can't mask a silly story.